To the Editors:
In the Spring 2012 issue of New Labor Forum, Nelson Lichtenstein made a powerful argument that the American labor movement should stop describing itself as “middle class” and use the term “working class” instead. Here are two additional reasons why Lichtenstein is right.
First, most of the labor movement’s core constituency undoubtedly identifies as working class. While labor leaders and progressives were abandoning the concept, workers held firm. According to the General Social Survey, the authoritative database for political scientists, 45.6 percent of adult Americans self-identify as “working class,” compared with 46.2 percent “middle class,” 5.4 percent “lower class,” and 2.8 percent “upper class.”1 The percentage identifying as working class is down only 2.5 percent since 1972, the first year of the survey.
Second, the middle class isn’t really a class; it’s a status group.2 This might sound like an arcane theoretical distinction, but it can make a huge difference in practice. Class is about power relations among groups that occupy distinctive positions in a system of production. Working-class people, for example, work for wages.3 Status, on the other hand, is about the relative position of groups on a vertical scale measuring something desirable like income. Middle-class people are higher than lower-class people and lower than upper-class people.
As an identifier for the labor movement, class beats status hands down. Class offers the possibility that, instead of competing with each other for relative status, individuals may recognize a shared class interest, join together in economic and political action, and thereby change the structure of power to their advantage. For the working class, this entails democratization of industry by means ranging from unions to government regulation and ownership. By contrast, taking money from the lower and upper classes and giving it to the middle class changes no structure. Worse yet, as Lichtenstein points out, the interests of the middle income group can conflict with those of the lower income group, which is why the right popularized the term in the first place.
Being working class means something. A member of the working class is a worker. A member of the middle class is . . . ah . . . um . . . a middler? As John Lennon put it, “a working-class hero is something to be.” (A few days before his death, Lennon claimed that the song was supposed to be “sardonic,” but when it was released he said that it was “for the people like me who are working class—whatever, upper or lower—who are supposed to be processed into the middle classes, through the machinery.”) A worker’s claim to respect is based on labor; a middler’s claim to respect is based on being better than a lower-class person. This helps to explain why the term “working class” has so much more (in Lichtenstein’s words) “emotive power and historic resonance.” I doubt that many labor activists today use the term “middle class” out of conviction. Why not say what we really mean? It is long past time for the labor movement to stop regurgitating right-wing class terminology, start reinforcing the self-perceived working-class identity of our core constituency, and begin helping the millions of workers who currently identify as middlers to come home.
—James Gray Pope
1. National Opinion Research Center, General Social Survey, Subjective Class Identification (www.norc.uchicago.edu/ GSS+Website/Browse+GSS+Variables/ Subject+Index). Figures are for 2006, the most recent year available. Respondents were questioned: “If you were asked to use one of four names for your social class, which would you say you belong in: the lower class, the working class, the middle class, or the upper class?” (Variable: Social Class: Subjective Class Identification.)
2. For an especially clear and succinct explanation of the distinction between class and status, see Martha R. Mahoney, Class and Status in American Law: Race, Interest, and the Anti-Transformation Cases, 76 S. Cal. L. Rev. 799, 823-26 (2003).
3. Or, more precisely, sellers of labor power other than those who exercise control over the labor power of others. Erik Olin Wright and Luca Perrone, “Marxist Class Categories and Income Inequality,” 42 American Sociological Review 32 (1977): 34.